The American Dream is changing. It used to be that you went to school to study something lucrative, get married, have kids, buy a house, work 40+ hours a week to pay your mortgage, save for retirement and then you die. However, costs have risen considerably and to some the American dream can seem lackluster. There was recently an article on NBC News about people living in homes they can’t afford, stating that, some, 38 million households cannot afford their housing. They are cost burdened. I don’t know about you, but that is a stressful way to live. Working your life away and drowning in debt. Life is too short for that. Why do we burden ourselves with possessions until we are no longer living our lives?
Instead, imagine living a life with minimal possessions. A life with little to no waste, using each element and item mindfully. Imagine being more connected to nature and humanity and filling each moment with gratitude and love. Freeing up time for you to experience all that life has to offer.
To jump start my slow living series, I’d like to introduce you to a concept where the aforementioned lifestyle is a reality. While interviewing Stevie and Margarita of Wonder Rigs, I learned how building and living in a tiny home has brought them into a slow and simple way of living. The young couple rid themselves of 90% of their personal possessions, spent 6 months building a tiny house, moved into it and took it across the country to live! While this sounds amazing, and it is, they also tell us of the downsides and pitfalls they’ve encountered along the way.
When Stevie and Margarita were 23, they were living in Virginia, sharing a room in a house with a few
other roommates and their dog. They had a “vision of independence” and decided they were ready to have their own space. Knowing that they couldn’t afford much and having some uncertainty over where life would take them they knew they wanted something mobile. “We considered a van, school bus and other things we saw people doing online. We knew we needed something we could travel with but also park and live in comfortably,” says Margarita. They wanted to create something beautiful and be self-sufficient.
Stevie and Margarita saw living in a tiny home as an affordable option which would allow them financial freedom as well as the ability to travel. The two of them took on this task with no previous experience in the area. However, plenty of research, a perfectionist mentality, and willing spirits ensured they got the job done right.
The planning stage took about a year and a half. It consisted of massive amounts of research, drawing up plans just to throw them away, and so on. Ideas were constantly shifting and changing as they learned how to prioritize to their needs. They decided on an 8’ x 16’ trailer because it was the largest they wanted to tow and the smallest they wanted to live in.
While tiny homes are currently trending, this home is unique because EVERYTHING is custom!! They built their doors and windows, even the copper roofing was handmade. The wood for the siding was handpicked and milled down by their friends. “It was like creating art,” says Margarita. “Every so often you step back and ask, ‘what does this need?’” Throughout the design, they continued to ask themselves, “how do we make this rectangular home feel less boxy?” The solution was to add curves. Curved countertop, curved shingles, round copper sink, etc. “Often times the wood would determine the end result.” They describe their home as simple, practical, beautiful and quirky.
Once they had arrived in Portland they found a place called ADX through a friend. It is a maker space with a woodshop, metal shop, etc. It was there that they put the finishing touches on their home. “We could have found a tiny house for the same price as what we built ours for but wanted a level of craftsmanship that we couldn’t afford,” says Margarita.
The bulk of the build took about 6 months. At that point, they sold or donated most of their belongings, packed up the caravan and headed West! Margarita got accepted into a grad school in Portland, Oregon. So, with Portland as the destination, they planned for a nice long road trip across the country. They knew that when they arrived they would have to eithernpark in the woods, an RV park, or find a person willing to host a tiny home on their property. So, they put an ad out on Craigslist and found someone willing to host who lived on a few acres backing up to the forest. The lot had a perfect spot for them to park, nestled into some trees.
Of course, not everything went as expected. “We romanticized the idea of living on the road. Watching shows and seeing different Instagram pages made it seem glamorous. We didn’t consider the high cost of travel; gas, food, etc.” A lot of the people who have written about doing something similar had quit triple figure jobs, where they obviously had some savings. Stevie and Margarita had low paying, service industry jobs with little to no savings. Even so, they managed to make it work.
As you can imagine, there are quite a few adjustments that must be made when moving into a 97sf home. For instance, purging your belongings. “It was painful to part with 90% of our belongings so we went through several rounds until we had only the most important items,” Margarita recalls.
Another challenge: living in such close quarters really tests your relationship. You have to create space to be alone. “When you fight you either work it out or go for a walk.” There is no going to another room to be alone and angry until it passes.
You don’t have the space indoors to do the things you love to do like yoga, create art, etc. You can do these things outdoors, however, weather permitting.
“Dealing with waste is frustrating. Gratifying but also tiring.” It’s a small space to clean but you must clean every day. Preparing food can be a challenge in such a small space. Entertaining guests isn’t out of the question but it becomes a different experience. You can’t have any huge parties unless it is mostly outdoors.
You become very aware of your consumption of water and energy, how much trash you create, waste disposal, etc. The home has a 15-gallon greywater tank that they use to wash the toilet. Greywater is all wastewater generated in households from streams without fecal contamination. That includes sink, baths, washing machines, etc. “Unless fully hooked up to the grid you have to be cognizant of everything leaving the house.” They use all biodegradable soaps that do not harm the environment or anything living in it. “It’s really special! I like seeing the used water going back to the plants and nature.”
Let talk about the toilet….
The toilet was the most shocking adjustment of all. “Unlike most people who flush away waste and forget about it, we do not.” Stevie and Margarita have a humanure composting system. You can read about this composting system in The Humanure Handbook. The short of it is that it is a safe and effective way to turn human waste into compost.
The toilet is a 5-gallon bucket with a toilet seat and next to it sits a bucket filled with sawdust or coconut coir or some other form of mulch. You use the toilet, put a scoop of the mulch on top, then, once the bucket is full you dump it into the compost pit. (It doesn’t smell at all.) You, then, use the greywater to wash the bucket out and you are good to go! The toilet sits in the bathroom but when you remove the buckets, the full space becomes the shower! A nice space saving touch!
This way of life really does create a more slow and mindful way of living. The two of them love being more connected to the land and the resources they use. They don’t feel weighed down by excess junk. Margarita finds that because she has less material possessions she is able to focus on what matters most to her. They have more financial freedom to travel and do what they love and don’t feel locked into jobs that make them unhappy. “I can choose to do the things I’m passionate about rather than doing things out of necessity.” When traveling, they just pull into a truck stop and close the curtains and they are home! They find that they do not consume nearly as much as they once had. There is no shopping, except for groceries, as there is no space for extra items.
This lifestyle is about quality over quantity. Very few people can afford to have a huge home, have the ability to travel, choose to work a job they love and still have time to just take life easy. With a tiny home, you can free up funds and really fill your life with experiences rather than things. It is still a lot of work but it is about loving the work you do.
This lifestyle is not without challenges. It may not be for everyone but ultimately it is about simplifying life. We are so blinded by this, so-called, “American dream” that we don’t see a way around it. But a simpler life is out there. You just have to do your research, be brave and go for it! We only have one chance to make our lives count.
As Margarita puts it, “It’s not about the tiny house, but the skills you learn along the way, the friends you make, the community and being surrounded by your own labor of love.”